The Reaction

The Renaissance view of life and of the world, which can be summed up bv the word mutability, was created by personalities of heroic stamina and required the leadership of such personalities for its preservation, for, indeed, it is not easy to live in a world where the only divinity is Fortuna and nothing is certain beyond measurement and probability. As Erich Fromm contends, neuroses originate from the failure, due to inferior biological endowment combined with stunted psychic growth, to face the burden of the human condition in a world that owes us nothing.

Some contemporary thinkers were frightened, for the relativism and decentralization of the Renaissance found expression not only in astronomy but also in political theory; furthermore, the impact of thinkers such as Machiavelli was compounded by the geographical discoveries that gave birth to the doctrine of ethical relativism. In England the herald of reaction against Renaissance thought was the theologian Richard Hooker who imagined that a new conservative position could be justified by appealing to nature’s laws linked with an absolute reason and an obedience of man to absolute ethics. In the Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy (1593-97), he examined the views current at his time:

Now if nature should intermit her course, and leave altogether, though it were but for a while, the observation of her own laws; if those principal and mother elements of the world, whereof all things in this lower world are made, should lose the qualities which now they have; if the frame of that heavenly arch erected over our heads should loosen and dissolve itself; if celestial spheres should forget their wonted motions, and by irregular volubility turn themselves any way as it might happen; if the prince of the lights of heaven, which now as a giant doth run his unwearied course, should as it were through a languishing faintness begin to stand and to rest himself; if the moon should wander from her beaten way, the times and seasons of the year blend themselves by disordered and confused mixture, the winds breathe out their last gasp, the clouds yield no rain, the earth be defeated of heavenly influence, the fruits of the earth pine away as children at the withered breasts of their mother no longer able to yield them relief: what would become of man himself, whom these things now do all serve? See we not plainly that obedience of creatures unto the law of nature is the stay of the whole world?

He proposed the comforting solution that was accepted by Newton and the scientists who followed him:

But howsoever these swervings are now and then incident into the course of nature, nevertheless so constantly the laws of nature are by natural agents observed, that no man denieth but those things which nature worketh are wrought, either always or for the most part, after the same manner.
Helène Metzger has shown that Newton developed his theory under the influence of this spirit of reaction. She is certainly right when she judges the overall effect of Newton’s work which devait vite devenir une alliée de cette piété bienséante et pensente1; but she has not analyzed in detail what caused Newton to arrive at his conservative conclusions nor what is their technical significance for science.


  1. Attraction universelle et religion naturelle chez quelques commentateurs anglais de Newton (Paris, 1938).